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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton's Use of the Soft Sell Worries Allies

July 31, 1993|PAUL RICHTER and KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In May, when the House voted on the budget bill, Democrats were ecstatic when Clinton plunged into the effort of trying to win over wavering party members. Clinton even called junior lawmakers, spending as much as 45 minutes on the phone with each of them.

But afterward, when House leaders tried to corner the undecided lawmakers, they found that Clinton had chewed over the lawmakers' concerns but had never really gotten around to asking for their votes. Horrified, the Democratic leadership contacted the White House with a clear message: Clinton must ask.

"He got the message, and he started doing it," an aide said.

Earlier presidents, of course, have used bullying tactics and promises to great effect. They have offered federal projects as rewards and threatened to cut federal spending in a lawmaker's state or district as punishment.

Lyndon B. Johnson threatened to disclose the name of a Southern senator's mistress to get the man to go along with him--according to legend at least.

Clinton tried a small measure of browbeating tactics earlier this year, but the effort failed.

The Administration tried to punish Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.) by threatening to move some National Aeronautics and Space Administration jobs to Texas. The threat was never carried out, but it backfired by making Shelby something of a hero in his home state.

With every Democratic vote crucial, "the White House can't afford to have a bunch of Shelbys scattered around the Senate," Penny said.

Clinton may simply have little enthusiasm for the dreary job of pinning down votes, which, other Administration officials attest, is just about as enjoyable as selling insurance.

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, one of the Administration's point men on the economic plan, confided with a fatigued sigh this week that he now seems to spend all his time on Capitol Hill.

"I feel like the lowest-paid lobbyist in town," he said.

But Beschloss said it is difficult to understand why Clinton would not use all levers available to him, considering how much is at stake for him and his party in the budget bill.

"This is a time when he is trying to demonstrate Democratic authority--and his ability not to be rolled," he said. "If he's defeated, it will suggest that (lawmakers) don't need to be afraid of him."

And next year, with elections coming up, and more crucial Clinton legislation at stake, "it will be every man and woman for themselves," Beschloss said.

He said Clinton's approach is surprising, considering that during his years in Arkansas the former governor was the most aggressive kind of buttonholer. "He was somebody who would follow legislators home to their doorstep to get them to do it his way," Beschloss said.

Still, George Christian, who was a press secretary to Johnson, said the strong-arm approach may simply be all wrong for a President who started out with 43% of the vote and has seen his popular support ebb even further since then.

"This approach doesn't work unless you've got broad grass-roots support," said Christian, now a political consultant in Austin, Tex. "There's no fear factor in many of these states."

Christian said he believes that congressional awe of the presidency has receded so much that pressure tactics have not worked since perhaps the early days of Richard Nixon's first term.

"There's less respect for the White House, no matter who's in it," he said.

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